As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, panel discussions are breaking out all over the country about the LGBT movement, its history and future. One of the topics getting some attention is the role of the LGBT media in the movement.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center is hosting a panel discussion on May 8 titled “Breaking News, Breaking Barriers,” a conversation with LGBT journalists about the coverage and representation of LGBT people in the media from the late 1960s through today. The Los Angeles Blade’s tireless news editor/reporter Karen Ocamb will serve on the panel, along with LZ Granderson and Bettina Boxall of the LA Times and Luis Sandoval of Despierta America.
No doubt, they will be asked to address the question of why we need the LGBT media in 2019. It’s a question I encountered countless times during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton was assured victory and would cement all the progress toward equality of the Obama years. Clinton may have neglected the Rust Belt during her campaign, but she remembered her LGBT base and granted the Blade an interview late in the campaign.
We get the rather insulting question about why we need our own niche press a lot in social media comments, usually after identifying a source as LGBT. “Who cares if Pete Buttigieg is gay?!? Why does it matter?!?” Cable news pundits have wondered the same. The reason it matters is that it’s never happened before at this level. And imagine the inspiration Buttigieg is providing to the confused, closeted kid in Indiana right now.
Insulting the LGBT media and questioning the need for our existence is a particular form of disrespect and homophobia. That disrespect has come from all sides. Prominent Washington Post opinion writers for years relied on the Blade’s coverage to inform their commentary without citing us, a professional faux pas bordering on unethical. The Democratic National Committee’s former director of communications, Karen Finney, once wrote in an email that she used the Blade to line her birdcage during a tumultuous period when the DNC was being sued by its former LGBT liaison and we were running critical stories. The birdcage line is a lame insult, but if she’d directed it at the African-American press or Jewish press, she would have been fired.
The need for our work is clearer now that we’re back to a hostile administration in the White House. Mainstream reporters rarely ask questions in the White House and State Department briefing rooms about LGBT topics. As Barney Frank used to say, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” Underrepresented communities need to tell their stories through their own lens. Take a look at the New York Times or Washington Post straight-washed obituaries of prominent LGBT people over the last 30 years and compare them to obits in the LGBT press and you’ll see that importance.
More recently, the Blade has focused on Latin America and immigration, embedding with LGBT migrants at the border since their plight is unique and largely ignored by mainstream outlets.
LGBT media outlets also speak the language of our community — and in a way that’s not patronizing. Take the recent trolling in the New York Post of a supposedly closeted bisexual presidential candidate jealous of Buttigieg’s surging poll numbers. We know they’re talking about Sen. Cory Booker, even as the Post hides behind dated, cheeky innuendo in raising the longstanding but unconfirmed rumors.
LGBT media are also unafraid of writing about the sexual orientation of public officials when they are attacking their own or working for an administration undermining our equality. Most heterosexual, mainstream reporters and readers would be shocked to learn that President Trump has possibly appointed a gay Cabinet secretary in the EPA’s Andrew Wheeler. That as-yet-unconfirmed rumor has swirled since his days as counsel for the notorious homophobe Sen. Jim Inhofe. We’ve never had an openly gay Cabinet secretary, so Wheeler has a chance to make history if it’s true.
And he’s not the only senior Trump official who may be hiding a gay secret (stay tuned). LGBT outlets were ahead of mainstream outlets on everyone from Sen. Larry Craig to Fox News’s Shepard Smith.
As the Washington Blade prepares to celebrate its own 50th this year, all of us are working hard to fulfill that longstanding mission of telling LGBT stories and writing the first draft of our own history.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at [email protected].
Jeffrey Dahmer was white & gay — Deal with it
The Black LGBTQ community deserves to have the truth told about Jeffrey Dahmer & Ed Buck -they’re both white gay men who killed Black gay men
By Jasmyne Cannick | LOS ANGELES – I’ve been watching a scary phenomenon sweep across America where if enough of us don’t like something from our past and take to social media to bitch and complain about it, we can simply erase and revise it under the guise of anti-racism and reconciliation.
The latest victim of whitewashed revisionist history is serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
After social media backlash, Netflix has removed the LGBTQ tag from its Ryan Murphy-created Jeffrey Dahmer limited series, “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Apparently, the LGBTQ community doesn’t want to be associated with a serial killer.
This is a complete about-face considering Netflix didn’t flinch in the face of its controversy over its relationship with comedian Dave Chappelle over his comments made about trans people. They seemed to double down it.
Now I don’t claim to know everything, but I know that Jeffrey Dahmer was three things — a serial killer, white and gay. No amount of whining and wishing it wasn’t so will change that or that most of his victims were Black gay men.
There are a lot of things that, as a Black woman, I don’t want to be associated with. I can’t tell you how many times I joined the collective groan of Black people everywhere when some atrocious crime is on the evening news, and a Black face appears on the screen as the alleged suspect. Do we get to call up the news, ask them not to show that the perpetrator is Black — to just gloss over that part — and they actually do it? No, we don’t.
Both Samuel Little and Lonnie Franklin, Jr. were Black male serial killers who spent decades murdering Black women before being caught. As Black people, we don’t get to change the fact that they were a Black men because we’re embarrassed.
Jeffrey Dahmer was a white gay man who murdered lots of Black men. Deal with it. Deal with it in the same way that the families of his victims had to. Be mad, be offended but don’t you dare say that “This is not the representation we’re looking for.”
The white LGBTQ community doesn’t get to disassociate itself from one of its own just because they’re worried about the impact on its image, and the fact that Netflix acquiesced is a slap in the face to the Black community — specifically the Black LGBTQ community. So what? Our truth and history doesn’t matter because white gay men are offended?
As a Black lesbian, I’ve spent my entire adult life trying my best to offend the white LGBTQ community with the truth about their racism.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Well, 23 years later, we had a repeat with the murder of 27-year-old Gemmel Moore at the hands of another white gay man — Democratic major donor Ed Buck. Yes — Democratic donor, because similar to Dahmer and the white LGBTQ community, the Democrats never want to admit that Buck was one of them — one of us.
Also, like with Dahmer, no one wanted to believe that this white gay man in West Hollywood was targeting Black gay men and shooting them up with meth. Law enforcement, the district attorney, and for a long while, even the news media gave Ed Buck the benefit of the doubt over his Black victims, even after there were two dead bodies.
Five years later, Buck is finally in prison with a 30-year-sentence.
Watching “Dahmer,” I felt for Glenda Cleveland because I know exactly what it feels like to know what’s going on and scream it as loud as you can, and still no one listens. To be gaslit and told it isn’t what you know it is and then have those same people turn around and pat themselves on the back for stopping a killer two deaths, one near death, and countless other victims later.
Rest assured that when I do the Ed Buck story, it will be tagged LGBTQ, true crime, geriatric, horror, and whatever other genre it falls under.
The Black LGBTQ community deserves to have the truth told about both Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Buck, and that starts with the fact that they are both white gay men who killed Black gay men. White gays shouldn’t get to absolve themselves from that.
Jasmyne Cannick is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles. Cannick is an on-air contributor who writes and speaks about collisions at the intersection of politics, race, and society.
She spent five years working to bring a serial killer, Ed Buck to justice.
Her Ring the Alarm podcast is available on Apple, Spotify, and Amazon Music.
Library board chair publicly bullies librarian over LGBTQ books
What’s it like to live in a place where librarians say they feel terrified? I reached out to residents of a South Carolina town to find out
By James Finn | DETROIT – Travelers Rest, South Carolina is a lovely little stop on the drive from the sea to the mountains, Katie Chaney tells me, “a wonderful place to raise a family.” She grew up there and moved back from Portland, Oregon with her wife Leah to raise their daughter Neba, now 2 years old. Katie runs a bakery called Hester General Store that she says has become something of local center of LGBTQ community life.
Katie, Leah, and Neba are caught up, however, in an anti-LGBTQ backlash roiling much of red-state America. Katie told me yesterday she worries Travelers Rest might not be healthy for her daughter:
Diverse books were important to me a child. Books are mirrors into people’s experiences, and when you take away the mirror, you silence them. I want my child to have mirrors into Leah’s and my experience. These decisions [to restrict access to books] take away her ability to walk into the library and learn about that, and I don’t think that’s okay.
I spoke to Leah after talking to Miles Dame, who called me on behalf of the Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group, a coalition of former Greenville County librarians and other residents concerned that their region is marching to a censorship drum that Pen America and the American Library Association have been warning about for months. Both organizations have released data showing that book bans and restrictions soared to unprecedented levels this year in school and public libraries.
Censorship often happens in an atmosphere of violent threats, as Brody Levesque reported yesterday in the Los Angeles Blade.
Miles and Katie became especially concerned about censorship two weeks ago when the Greenville County Republican Party officially asked the county council to ban all LGBTQ-themed books from young adult (YA) library sections. Katie attended a council meeting to speak out against the proposal:
“The council people told us to calm down, that nothing had been decided, but we made our voice heard and it was very impactful.”
Katie says that since politicians ordered library Pride book displays removed in June, “People who are LGBTQ in the community or the library are being berated, publicly humiliated for standing up for diversity. These employees are trying to do their job and not be biased. Librarians hold that sacred. As a queer business owner who has an all queer team, it bothers me that this is the experience of people trying to do nothing more than their job.”
This past Monday offers a vivid example of the berating Katie spoke to me about. Some of it happened on camera, broadcast to the public.
Travelers Rest librarian reporting intimidation is openly bullied at library board meeting
On Monday, the Greenville County Library Board of Trustees spent a majority of its meeting addressing book-banning concerns. Six of eight people who participated in public comments spoke in favor of preserving access to LGBTQ-related books. Two spoke in opposition.
During the board meeting, Chairman Allan Hill denied accusations that he “threatened and intimidated” librarians during a visit to the Travelers Rest library branch last Wednesday.
Former library employee Stephen Shelato says he attended the meeting as a spokesperson for current employees, who reportedly fear retaliation. Shelato testified that Hill bullied and intimidated librarians during the Wednesday visit. “For 20 minutes, in front of everyone there, [Hill] berated staff about a book display, pointing to LGBT titles and demanding over and over, ‘Do you see why people don’t like this? Do you see? Do you see?’ And, they said ‘no.’”
Shelato added, “One staff member said that being bullied by Mr. Hill was the worst moment of their life. Had any other patron violated the code of conduct the way that he did, they would have been asked to leave.”
That sounded over the top to me until I watched video of Chairman Hill at the board meeting. He can be seen on camera bullying Travelers Rest Library Branch Manager Nathan Schmaltz, who did not speak until Hill insisted.
The chairman asks about Wednesday’s branch visit: “Nathan, did I threaten anybody?”
Schmaltz swallows and looks reluctant to speak. Haltingly, he replies, “Mr. Hill, your presence at our branch Wednesday night…”
Schmaltz takes a deep breath and lets out a long sigh. He starts to speak again but Hill cuts him off. “I’ve been told by my daughters that I’ve intimidated them when they would have their friends over, so if, um …”
Schmaltz tries again, speaking very slowly and sounding very reluctant. “Your position on this board, and your actions and your words towards our staff was interpreted and felt as threatening and intimidating.” He swallows hard and sits.
“But just to be clear,” presses Hill pointedly, as if demanding a different answer, “Did I threaten or did I bully anybody?”
Shelato speaks up. “He just said that they felt threatened.”
A look of anger crosses Hill’s face. He makes an intimidating arm gesture toward Shelato and barks, “I don’t need you, buddy. Just let him talk.”
Shelato replies, “That seems pretty threatening.”
Branch Manager Schmaltz stands and speaks after a significant pause, again sounding very reluctant. “Your presence with your actions, your behaviors, and your words were threatening and intimidating.”
(To view the portion of the board meeting transcribed above, see WHNS video coverage or to see Hill bullying and intimidating other people he disagrees with, watch the full meeting in video that Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group posted to YouTube.)
Then the police got involved
The day after the board meeting, Travelers Rest Police received a complaint that the Travelers Rest library branch was spreading obscene material by promoting books with sexually explicit material.
Katie tells me she was shocked when she got fearful calls about law enforcement involvement. “Travelers Rest is a choice place to move right now. Friendly, wonderful bike trial. Best farmers market. So to hear this happened, that the police were called…”
Her voice trails off, like she’s having an internal debate about her decision to move back to Greenville County. Miles tells me a police officer showed up at the branch, gathered up an armload of books and took them into a conference room.
Travelers Rest Police chief Ben Ford later said in a statement that his department investigated the obscenity complaint but that it was unfounded.
Libraries are supposed to be about free access to books, not about restricting or banning books.
Miles, speaking for Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group, told me yesterday that Greenville County librarians have resigned for standing up for access to books that are unobjectionable except that they’re about LGBTQ people. He tells me branch managers have been fired for allowing tax-paying citizens equal access to library rooms for drag queen story hour. He tells me librarians have been forced not to create displays of books that would be of interest to LGBTQ people.
He tells me none of the pressure comes from other librarians.
He tells me he resigned his position as a librarian because he wasn’t being allowed to do his job — to provide equal access to books. He tells me librarians feel pressured to restrict LGBTQ-themed books for “sexualized content” when the books do not contain inappropriate sexual content.
As one example, he cites I am Jazz, a picture book featuring the real-life story of a transgender child. The book helps small children understand that trans kid exist and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Nothing in the book is remotely sexualized, but librarians have been forced to place it in “restricted access” sections reserved for books with sexual content.
Miles says he doesn’t understand all the hoopla and pressure to restrict/ban books, since parents already have total control of what their kids see/ borrow at the library. “Parents can already opt their kids out of adult books, and library policy already requires children not be unaccompanied in the library.”
He says librarians feel under siege and unable to carry out the professional responsibilities they trained for. “The library board and the director are not doing anything to support the staff. They are calling for LGBTQ content removal. Who is doing it exactly is opaque.”
Describing an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, he points out that library Executive Director Beverly James sat silent as Hill bullied Schmaltz at Monday’s meeting, saying she didn’t speak up once to defend librarians or free access to books.
Katie puts it more bluntly, telling me, “The librarians are terrified. We get messages asking for help but requesting anonymity, for fear of retribution.”
Terrified librarians? Seriously? Did I really just write this story?
I have to ask myself what’s happened to my nation. When I was a conservative Southern Baptist boy in Gadsden, Alabama — not all that far from Travelers Rest in a cultural sense — I internalized values that books and learning are sacred, that banning books is un-American and even “communist.”
We sure have come a long way from those ideals!
Banning books is all the rage right now, especially books about LGBTQ and Black Americans. As I reported earlier this week, The Republican activist group Moms for Liberty are even fighting to ban ‘Girls Who Code,’ a series of middle-grade books designed to get little girls excited about careers in computer programing and data science.
Somebody somewhere decided girls should not be reading books like that.
Chairman Allan Hill made clear in Monday’s board meeting that he knows what books young people should not be reading: “It’s not our job to provide where a child could get books that they shouldn’t be reading,” he said, objecting to a library flyer letting patrons know the Brooklyn Public Library offers cost-free digital library cards to youth aged 13 to 21.
I guess that’s the nation I live in now, a nation where politicians and community leaders object to free library cards. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to live in the kind of authoritarian state Allan Hill apparently values.
Will you join me at the polls in November to send a clear message? In the meantime, how about dropping by Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group with encouragement and support? And, if you’re passing through the Greenville area, I hear the baked goods at Hester General Store are worth stopping for!
James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]
The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.
Virginia is for Lovers, not political agendas
Did a politician leverage state’s brand for his personal agenda? Looking at ethics of politicians promoting state tourism during elections
The iconic slogan first appeared in a 1969 ad campaign for what is now Virginia Tourism Corporation. It was created by Martin and Woltz Inc., which later evolved into The Martin Agency, and has been in use ever since.
Initially positioning the state as a destination for romance, “Virginia is for Lovers” soon gave way to various interpretations. With so much to experience, Virginia has become a welcoming place for history lovers, food lovers, nature lovers—all kinds of lovers. That’s the premise behind a new national campaign, “Virginia is for…”, developed by The Martin Agency, that launched this spring.
“Virginia is for Lovers” resonates deeply with many—myself included. It’s an example of the power that emotionally driven branding can have on our psyche. In an interview earlier this year, Virginia Tourism brand director Lindsey Norment said the slogan’s popularity remains because “it allows Virginians to make it their own and feel prideful of that.”
Indeed, love is a powerful driver when it comes to persuading people. Love is inherently welcoming, positive and inclusive.
Love is also apolitical, which is why I was disheartened to see a new Virginia Tourism video prominently featuring Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin.
The stand-alone 60-second promotional piece, titled “Welcome to Virginia,” seems to take cues from The Martin Agency’s flagship campaign, but the format and overall tone are entirely different. More anthemic in feel, it highlights different people speaking directly to camera. The sole elected official, Gov. Youngkin, is a central figure in the video and its primary narrator.
Not long after it begins, Youngkin makes his appearance on camera. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up and navy slacks, he walks with a confident stride along the track of the Richmond Raceway. Looking directly at camera, he smiles as he introduces himself.
“In Virginia, there’s a million different ways to say welcome,” he declares. “I’m Governor Glenn Youngkin, and I want to be one of the first.” The words “Governor Glenn Youngkin” accompany him on screen.
Welcome to Virginia:
The video continues as Youngkin provides the voiceover for a series of lifestyle shots featuring an impressively diverse cast of characters. We’re welcomed by different types of Virginians: a long-haired surfer dude with his pals, an edgy millennial bartender serving up a cocktail, and a varied group of barbecue lovers, all ages and races, sitting at the same table. “Bievenido!” a Latino boy exclaims.
Youngkin appears on camera again—this time in the driver’s seat of a race car, looking cool and confident. He offers one last welcome before the video ends, signed off by “Welcome to Virginia” and the “Virginia is for Lovers” logo.
On initial glance, the video might not seem like anything out of the ordinary. To many, it will come across as a fun, upbeat tourism piece for Virginia.
But is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?
Certainly it’s not a novel idea that a governor might be in a video to promote state tourism. Last year, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy of Alaska was featured in his state’s tourism marketing campaign. He touted Alaska as a Covid-safe state that was “leading the nation in all the important health metrics,” as an incentive for people to travel there. Later, though, it was revealed that when the ad ran, Alaska actually ranked 30th in the country for vaccination rates.
In 2020, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota appeared in, and narrated, a state tourism ad airing on Fox News. The 30-second ad, which ran for two weeks, cost taxpayers over $800,000. Noem received national publicity upwards of 85 million views, but it’s debatable if state tourism increased. AP News reported that while Google searches for “Kristi Noem” peaked, terms like “South Dakota tourism” and “visit South Dakota” remained stagnant.
But it’s a tourism campaign involving Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey that’s particularly noteworthy.
In 2013, coming out of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie got star billing in his state’s tourism ads. The “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign ran leading up to the gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The campaign itself, along with where it aired and the timing of its release, gave Christie an unexpected platform to hone his brand image and gain greater exposure across key Northeast states.
His opponent, Democratic candidate Barbara Buono, said the ads gave him an unfair advantage, calling it both “supremely arrogant and wildly inappropriate.” Buono lost the election. Two years later, Christie announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election.
There are important parallels to draw here.
Last year, Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade. The former businessman, who had never held elective office, ran a successful campaign by cultivating his own distinct brand, positioning himself as an enthusiastic, moderate candidate who appealed to both forever Trumpers and never Trumpers.
With his can-do attitude and signature red fleece vest, Youngkin portrayed an affable, everyman image—positive, charismatic and relatable. He kept his messaging simple and concise, advocating for broad issues like safety, education and cost of living.
But many claimed that two faces of Glenn Youngkin emerged once elected. Just 10 days into office, he began receiving blowback over new policies in his conservative agenda which didn’t appear to align with his calls for unity or moving the state forward.
Youngkin immediately signed an executive order to root out critical race theory in Virginia, which isn’t mentioned in the Virginia Department of Education’s curriculum (Politifact). Asserting protection of “parental rights,” he also supported measures to regulate explicit content in schools, force teachers to out their LGBTQ+ students, and most recently, restrict the rights of trans students.
Despite publicly distancing himself from Trump during his campaign, he has since hired many veterans of the Trump administration, including a former Trump EPA head who has repeatedly minimized the threat of climate change. Youngkin also plans to withdraw Virginia from a greenhouse gas initiative established to help fight climate change regionally.
And when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Youngkin reinforced his stance as a “pro-life” governor by pursuing a 15-week abortion ban in Virginia and headlining a pro-life gala in Washington, D.C., for a prominent anti-abortion group.
None of these policies seem to suggest Virginia is moving forward.
In fact, an opinion piece in The Washington Post states that Youngkin’s culture wars are good for him but bad for Virginia business, causing the state to be viewed as a less welcoming place—an insight that seems to be the antithesis to the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.
I reached out to Virginia Tourism to get more information, which left me with more questions than answers.
For starters, the video was not created or produced by The Martin Agency, Virginia Tourism’s current agency of record. According to a spokesperson at Virginia Tourism, the concept for the video was developed by Virginia Tourism and produced by POOLHOUSE, the agency behind Youngkin’s winning brand campaign when he ran for governor.
On its website, POOLHOUSE says it creates “bold campaigns that win elections and move people to action.” A Google search reveals the agency has been referred to as a “GOP-focused political ad firm” and a “scrappy Republican ad agency.” Its Instagram feed includes congratulatory posts for Republican politician wins, a recap of its favorite ads for Youngkin, and a quote that speaks to its desire to be “the best political agency in the business.” This year, POOLHOUSE plans to open a D.C. office to pick up advocacy clients and more congressional business.
Officials at Virginia Tourism did not directly respond when asked if they were aware POOLHOUSE was the political ad agency behind Youngkin’s campaign. Instead, they provided the following statement: “POOLHOUSE was selected because of their outstanding creative work and reputation, not only in Virginia but across the country, for producing beautiful videos.” Yet Virginia Tourism also said that when the project was put out to bid, they only received one offer, which resulted in the contract with POOLHOUSE.
POOLHOUSE did not respond to inquiry by phone or email by the time this article was published.
As for the purpose and timing of the video, Virginia Tourism said it is “an evergreen piece to showcase the beautiful state of Virginia and to welcome travelers to Virginia” and it launched on Labor Day weekend “to coincide with a high-impact travel weekend.”
However, its release also coincides with the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections on Nov. 8. Most of the country is holding state legislative elections and there are 36 gubernatorial seats on the ballot. A week after Youngkin shared the “Welcome to Virginia” video in a retweet, he posted a political ad in which he appears promoting Virginia Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega. According to her website, she is working with POOLHOUSE as well.
While only in office a few months, Youngkin has been spending a lot of time outside of the state he’s supposed to be governing.
Many news outlets report that he’s actively endorsing Republican politicians running for office in key swing states. So far, he’s expressed support for GOP gubernatorial candidates Paul LePage of Maine, who has an extensive history of racist remarks; Kari Lake of Arizona, who has appeared with Nazi sympathizer and QAnon-linked activists; and Tudor Dixon of Michigan, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape because she believes there’s “healing through the baby.”
These candidates are all part of an alarming trend of election deniers running for governor this year as well.
In preparation to wade into national politics, Youngkin established two political organizations, America’s Spirit and Spirit of Virginia (the latter of which paid for Vega’s ad mentioned above). Both groups can accept contributions of any size to fund Youngkin’s political efforts, which include his campaigning for other GOP candidates, as well as his own self-promotion.
This summer, Youngkin met with Republican megadonors amid hints he’s mulling a White House bid. One of his midterm stops will include Nevada, a 2024 early state for presidential candidate nominations.
After the upset in Virginia, many believe Youngkin’s win gave the GOP a winning blueprint for 2022 and beyond. Part of his strategy included establishing an early media spend to introduce himself and begin building his brand in a campaign as soon as possible.
That campaign, into which Youngkin put $20 million of his own money, was fueled by a robust media buy including 40 TV videos and hundreds of radio, digital and design advertisements, including bumper stickers in multiple languages. Incidentally, Youngkin is considered one of the nation’s richest politicians, with a net worth of $470 million.
“One thing that Youngkin did very smartly was getting started earlier, particularly with media,” POOLHOUSE CEO Will Ritter said in an interview with Fox Business last year. “That means if you’re running in ’22, you need to be thinking how you’re going to get your message to people as soon as possible.”
Indeed, timing, placement and context are important components to launching a brand.
While the “Welcome to Virginia” video has no associated media buy, it will be seen extensively through state-owned platforms such as Virginia Welcome Centers and the state’s nine commercial airports, including major hubs like Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport, outside Washington, D.C. Combined, the foot traffic in these areas alone translates to millions of impressions, giving Youngkin unprecedented exposure to a broad, diverse audience made up of travelers from all over the country.
Because the video is intended to be an evergreen piece (meaning relevant for long-term purposes), it has the potential to run during the entire term of Youngkin’s office, as well as the time of his campaigning should he throw his hat (or fleece vest) into the ring in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination. Like Christie’s “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign, the “Welcome to Virginia” video portrays Youngkin in a positive, heroic way that not only gets his name out, but bolsters his brand on the national stage.
Given all these factors, as well as continued press about Youngkin’s potential political aspirations (which are even making international headlines), it’s not implausible to think that the “Welcome to Virginia” video could be playing a role in a much larger agenda: a long game to establish Youngkin as a viable presidential candidate for 2024 or even 2028.
A recent article in Vanity Fair cautions us not to be fooled by the moderate “suburban dad vibe.” From traditional Republican to culture warrior, Youngkin has become a public advocate of Trump-backed election deniers, which not only normalizes extremists as credible representatives of this country but poses a serious threat to our democracy.
As a creative professional, it’s been horrifying to come to terms with the role branding is playing in our politics. From misleading messaging to polished image-making, the strategies around crafting a politician’s brand are getting less transparent, more insidious, and farther from the truth.
I care deeply about my country, my home state of Virginia, and my local community in Richmond, which is why I felt compelled to dig deeper into the “Welcome to Virginia” video.
I don’t like feeling that people in the video may not have been aware of Youngkin’s involvement (or his political agency), or worse, were used for ulterior motives. I don’t want my state to be represented by a polarizing political figure whose brand has been referred to as Trump Light, Trump in a red vest, and Trumpism Without Trump.
And I don’t think it’s appropriate for what I perceive to be my tax dollars helping a politician to promote himself for his personal ambitions under the guise of a tourism video—particularly a governor actively working to roll back my rights as a woman and instill countless other antiquated policies that seem at odds with the values of many Virginians, as well as the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.
When Youngkin was elected, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement that vowed to fight against his regressive agenda: “Glenn Youngkin’s anti-equality, anti-choice, racist tactics sought to sow fear and confusion, turning Virginian against Virginian for political gain,” said interim president Joni Madison. “Anti-equality extremists will continue to use bigotry to score political points. But we know that history has proven hate-filled electoral strategies ultimately stir the conscience of the nation.”
President Joe Biden also had some choice remarks about Youngkin: “Extremism can come in many forms,” he said at a grassroots event. “It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.”
Over the years, I’ve written numerous essays about the power of branding. One of the most successful tactics of brand building is to infiltrate platforms that don’t obviously translate as advertising. It’s why brands take advantage of product placement in popular movies and series television. The “soft sell” exposure not only increases awareness of a brand, it enables people to develop a deep connection to it in a much more organic, natural way.
In my essay “Canceling the Confederacy,” I explain how the United Daughters of the Confederacy found a way to shape the Confederacy brand by promoting the Lost Cause, a biased perspective of U.S. history, through an unassuming medium: school textbooks. It was an attempt at rewriting history, reinforced by the construction of Confederate monuments, and to this day, many still subscribe to its false narrative.
And therein lies the danger.
Branding, in all its nuance and subtlety, can distort our perception of what’s real. It can skew or stretch the truth and influence our thoughts on a subliminal level. After all, there’s a fine line between the power of persuasion and the art of deception. And when politicians are involved, be assured it’s even more unclear.
To clarify, the issue at hand is not about a governor appearing in a state tourism video. It’s about Governor Youngkin appearing in a state tourism video produced by his own political agency. It’s about the timing of the video’s release during the lead-up to midterm elections in which he’s actively campaigning for other candidates. And it’s about the exposure this video gives Youngkin to millions of people from all over the country amid talks of his own potential presidential run.
Again, is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?
Everyone will draw their own conclusions, but it’s my hope that by raising awareness on the role branding plays in our politics, we can better understand the impact it has on our elections and the candidates who are running.
More than anything, I hope this knowledge empowers us all to make informed choices at the ballot box. The preservation of our democracy may very well depend on it.
Rachel Scott Everett is co-founder and creative director at EVERGIB, a nomadic creative studio specializing in strategically led advertising and branding. A champion of big ideas and the power of storytelling, Rachel believes creativity can be used as a force for good to improve the world we live in.
The preceding commentary was originally published at Muse by Clio and is republished by permission.
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